Thursday, July 15, 2004

New Comics for July 14, Part 2

I forgot to mention that Part 1 featured all the "team" books, but you probably noticed the theme. Here are the rest.

Action Comics #817: Written by Chuck Austen; drawn by Ivan Reis and Marc Campos. A wounded Superman recovers at STAR Labs after the last few issues' worth of fighting with Gog. However, several B-list villains who didn't make the cut for Identity Crisis have learned Supes is vulnerable, and attack the facility. As it happens, Wonder Woman and Superboy are there to help, but the Weapons Master manages to get through and provide the cliffhanger. The art carries the book, maybe by design -- it doesn't seem too hard to write snappy dialogue for fight scenes, and since Austen took over in April, that's primarily what Action has delivered. Still, Austen gives us satirical characters -- Jack Ryder, a Jerry Springer/Morton Downey-like newscaster whose cameraman sacrifices himself for the story; and Mohlman, an annoying, nerdish doctor who in the movie would be played by a bleached-blond Jack Black. Both are fairly broad, and the cameraman comes off the best. It's hard to take the whole thing too seriously when it begins and ends with somber announcements about Superman's death.

DC Comics Presents Mystery In Space: The Julius Schwartz tribute continues this week with Adam Strange, an Earthman periodically teleported to the planet Rann via "Zeta-Beam" (and no, his Rannian wife is not named "Catherine Zeta-Beam"). The two stories herein are inspired by a cover where Adam must choose between stopping an atomic blast on Earth or a giant heat-beam on Rann. The first story, by veteran Superman writer Elliot S! Maggin and artist J.H. Williams, is a more literal interpretation of the cover. When Adam's advanced Rannian technology falls into the hands of a corrupt Earth government, it creates a nuclear crisis which guest-star the Elongated Man must solve; since Adam himself must take out a rogue weather-control device on Rann. The resolution is a neat bit of dovetailing worthy of "Seinfeld."

The second story, written by Grant Morrison with art by Jerry Ordway, is a more conceptual riff on "two worlds." It juxtaposes an Army attempt to invade Rann with commentary on Adam's editor Julius Schwartz, DC's sci-fi heroes of the Space Age, and the readers of the original Mystery in Space. This unconventional approach argues that the children who read Adam's fantastic adventures in their youth grew up to face the struggles of the 1960s, and hope for a better world. The message is somewhat more poignant given that DC's comics of the 1960s sought to keep out those harsh realities -- and Adam himself was literally able to escape Earth for a comparatively idyllic life on another planet. All in all, this was a fine installment in what hopefully will be a fitting tribute.

And now, the Batman books.

Gotham Central #21: Written by Ed Brubaker; art by Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano. This is the penultimate chapter of "Un(re)solved," but just like last issue (and like the cop shows this book emulates) there's a helpful "Previously in Gotham Central" recap page. Basically, the Mad Hatter is being questioned for his role in killing a high-school baseball team several years before. Also suspects are two former students, now adults but then ostracized for being nerds. There is some thought that the Penguin might have wanted the team dead as part of his gambling operations. Finally, the detective on the case was Harvey Bullock, now disgraced for killing a man who shot former Commissioner Gordon. Most of the issue follows detectives Driver and MacDonald questioning the Mad Hatter (who's locked up), Bullock, the ex-nerds, and the Hatter's former landlady about his involvement -- but by the end of the issue, things have gone south and the investigation might be compromised. I really like this book -- the characters all talk like real people (or at least real TV cops, which may well be a step up for comics) and the art is gloomy, almost photorealistic. When fantastic characters like Batman and his villains show up here, they still look natural. There is a Gotham Central paperback out, collecting the first 7 issues, which is a great way to get into this ambitious series.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #181: Written by Dylan Horrocks; art by Ramon Bachs and Jon Holredge. Barbara Gordon gets to slip into Batgirl's skin again, at least in cyberspace, as she tries to find out who's been killing hackers. Along the way, Batman gets to question a mob boss's daughter, who Bruce Wayne knew from summer camp and who blames Batman for her father's incapacity. The best part of the story involves one hacker's attempt to take out another by hijacking a cruise missile. The revelation of the killer's identity is both surprising and novel, and the art isn't bad. It tries to blend different styles in the "cyberspace" segments, to reflect the different genres of characters in the computer universe. While the story doesn't say anything new about Batman or Barbara, I've read worse, including in this series.

Superman/Batman #11: Written by Jeph Loeb; drawn by Michael Turner and Peter Steigerwald. Part 4 of "The Supergirl From Krypton" finds Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman invading Apokolips (with the help of former Apokoliptian Big Barda) to rescue Superman's ostensible cousin Kara from the evil despot Darkseid. Even if I hadn't seen the cover of the next issue, I wouldn't have been surprised at the ending for this one -- but I'm getting ahead of myself. Wonder Woman and Barda fight Barda's old colleagues, the Female Furies. (This includes Barda's admission that WW "inspired" her; never mind that these days, Barda was around for a few years before WW showed up.) Batman fights giant Demon Dogs. Superman finally catches up to Darkseid, but we don't get to see him fight too much.

Along the way, dialogue and our heroes' internal monologues drive home the point that 1) Batman doesn't trust Kara, 2) Superman trusts her implicitly, 2a) this is no different than if Batman were going to rescue Robin, and 3) Kara's stay on Paradise Island made her partly Wonder Woman's responsibility. Ever since Jeph Loeb started writing this series, I have been annoyed with his use of dueling first-person narration for Supes and Batman; and here, when he actually stops using it (for the Wonder Woman scenes, naturally), the issue improves noticeably. To me this series has become an excuse for "big dumb fun," and has turned out to be an overwrought exercise in -- for lack of a better term -- "stunt plotting." There are probably a half-dozen better ways for these high-profile heroes to find out the truth about Kara, but apparently they are not as marketable as "Three Justice Leaguers Attack Apokolips!" Oh well; it'll be over in two months.

Batman: The Order Of Beasts: Eddie Campbell's one-shot is an "Elseworlds" tale of Bruce Wayne traveling to 1939 London and getting tangled in a murder mystery involving an animal-themed cult. Despite the monochromatic color palette and the unassuming artwork, the word that comes immediately to mind is "jaunty." Campbell presents a Batman who isn't quite as grim or driven as the current version. He's just starting out and makes little mental notes as to how he can improve his crimefighting skills. He's also accepted by local law enforcement without much question -- just a transatlantic call to Commissioner Gordon to check his bona fides. Campbell's Batman is depicted as a guy in a suit, almost as if he were drawing Adam West, but he never makes Batman a ridiculous figure. The mystery itself goes from plot point to plot point without much trouble, making for a light bit of entertainment that captures the spirit of the Darknight Detective.

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